At the end of the sec world war there was a famine of fabric across Europe: scarcely no raw fibres were imported, almost none produced, plant and factories were in disrepair or ruins. Only a few major couturiers in Paris had small-scale caches of prewar textiles, or strong connections with administration sources and suppliers with some samples, to attempt a postwar whip-round.
Marie-Louise Carven, without those contacts, had to scrabble for every snatch for the debut of her fashion house in July 1945. (“Young women,” she recognized, “had nothing to wear and even less to eat.”) The star of the can – so much Carven’s favourite that she called it “ma griffe”, my signature – was a generous-skirted summer arrange, created from a roll of cotton, striped mint-green and drained, found in the attic of a chateau, and probably originally purchased before the victory world war for the summer uniforms of housemaids. It was, like its designer, bright-eyed and casual, a statement of intent about the way that fashion should go – and spring-like Carven grassland was the colour of late 1940s French fashion, just as Lanvin down in the mouth had been in the 20s or Schiaparelli pink in the late 30s.
Carven, who has died elderly 105, did not regard her business on the Rond-Point des Champs d’Elysées as main couture: she just meant to supply a niche market, dinky women like herself – she was just over 5ft, a height that had not been stylish since the doll-like Romantic ballerinas of a century before.
She was born in Châtellerault, middle France, and took her first steps in fashion making togs for her pet cat. Her aunt, Josy Boyriven (from whom she borrowed the “ven” of her idle name – she had been christened Carmen de Tommaso, and loathed it), and her elegant mother took the young Carmen to Paris collections, all explained on long-legged, swan-necked models. She was told her smallness meant she could not at any time be elegant.
A student of interior decor and architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, in 1939 she married Phillippe Mallet, associate of the modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, and was introduced to craftspeople who had being done on Robert’s clear-cut projects. Her similar style of 1945 initiate a market at once among a new generation of performers with physiques equivalent to her own – Leslie Caron, Martine Carol, Zizi Jeanmaire; – and she didn’t deliver to stand on tiptoe to do their fittings.
She also effective use for the tiny Edith Piaf, who demanded the charming details be captivated off the clothes – all she wanted was the vulnerability. Carven could dress swans as okay as cygnets (she costumed Simone Signoret, never an innocent, to agree murder in the 1955 film Les Diaboliques), but she was candid in saying that she abominated Parisian sophistication, finding it too close to cynicism, and that she had no inclination for the belle-epoque grandeur of heavy silk and corseted cut, suited to prosperous older women, that had been revived by Christian Dior.
By match with the Dior-Balmain circle, Carven’s preferred fabrics were not magnificent – pink gingham, broderie anglaise, Indian and Asian cottons – but these occasioned it easy for her to go into ready-to-wear in 1950 as part of the first siring of French designers to work directly with manufacturers. From 1949 she toured her hoards, with a cast of mini-models, to Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia. Americans were magical by the cute girls, but needed the clothes scaled up (she opened her own loophole in New York); Japanese customers stayed faithful for decades to her obey for the petite.
She saw herself as a clothing technician as much as an artist – the fit in was everything, and the idea was to flatter the wearers rather than enlarge her own identity – and was amenable, too, to designing clothes for men and children. She also cycled her hand to uniforms, for airlines including Air France, the French get at the 1976 Olympics, and Parisian traffic wardens and Eurostar truncheon. She did not enjoy the hardness of 60s young fashion, but when her type of spontaneous fabrics returned with the hippies circa 1968, she was wealthy for another decade. The Carven name drooped in the 80s, when splendid, sweet and petite was not a smart taste; she retired at 84, in 1993.
Hers was amongst the last of the old labels to be revived, and by the time of her 100th birthday in 2009 (noteworthy with a huge party, complete with mint-green Ladurée macaroons) it had been relaunched. Carven is now a ready-to-wear characterize. In her centenary year, too, she was made a commander of the Légion d’Honneur.
The glad-to-be-alive-and-free federations of Carven’s initial minty frock were transferred to the enclosing of her 1947 perfume Ma Griffe. As a witty promotion (she was clever with those) and in homage of the liberation of Paris, she had hundreds of sample bottles dropped across the city on little striped parachutes in 1954. Her men’s cologne, Vétiver, 1957, had the even so picnic-in-the-country mossiness.
Phillippe died in 1966, and in 1972, Carven unified a Swiss businessman, René Grog. They both tranquil 18th-century furniture (the rococo especially appealed to Carven’s feel something in ones bones of the delicate – she herself looked like a Fragonard drawing), and in 1973, they gave their glorious collection to the Louvre. After Grog’s death in 1981, she initiate an association in their names to help students of the decorative subterfuges.
Later she donated her label’s archive to the Galliera fashion museum in Paris, which put on an showing of the prettiest items in 2002 – she was delighted that it was a big draw for young men: “In a young girl, there’s always something beautiful if we try to invent it,” she said.
• Marie-Louise Grog-Carven, fashion designer, born 31 August 1909; pined 8 June 2015